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GN's “New Norm” Free Photo Bank on Unsplash to Change Visual Misperceptions of Hearing Loss and Hearing Aids

Celebrating today's World Hearing Day theme of “Changing Mindsets,” GN has established a photo bank depicting modern hearing aids worn by real-life users. The photos are available on the popular free image website Unsplash.com.
Side photo of musician Jacob Kulick with his small hearing aid; he is wearing an earring and his hand has a tattoo

Nashville musician Jacob Kulick and his hearing aids.

GN, the Danish parent company of ReSound and Beltone, is launching The New Norm campaign to change the outdated visual perceptions people have about hearing aids and hearing loss. GN has created an image bank of free photos depicting six inspiring real-life hearing aid wearers within Unsplash.com. This website provides royalty-free downloadable photos and is particularly popular with media members, freelancers, videographers, and others.

The images are available starting today, Sunday, March 3, which coincides with the World Health Organization’s World Hearing Day 2024 and this year's theme, “Changing Mindsets.” The result is a striking, perception-shifting collection of free images that GN hopes will help replace the use of outdated and stereotypical imagery.

Changing Mindsets with New Imagery

It has become commonplace to read an excellent article or online post related to hearing loss or hearing healthcare but then see accompanying photography showing only older people who are wearing HUGE flesh-colored outdated hearing aids—devices that would have represented old technology even if it were 40 years ago and Ronald Reagan were president. HearingTracker and many others have pointed out this problem on web posts, and photos of old, ugly hearing aids have become a pet peeve among audiologists, hearing aid specialists, and consumers who wear hearing aids.

On the left are old, large, beige hearing aids, and on the right are new almost-invisible hearing aids

On the left, some screenshots of photos typically used by media when reporting on hearing healthcare issues; on right, some examples of more modern hearing aids.

Enter GN. The company has initiated “The New Norm” photography campaign with the goal of changing the way people literally see hearing aids, thereby challenging outdated perceptions and breaking stigmas. “This is a selection of royalty-free images of real people wearing real hearing aids,” explained GN Senior Product Marketing Manager Ceri Whittaker in a press briefing about The New Norm campaign. “And we've created it specifically to challenge some outdated and inaccurate beliefs that people hold around hearing and hearing technology.”

New free photos that accurately depict hearing loss and hearing aids

Captured by photographer and hearing aid wearer Gala Ricote, the photos featured on Unsplash.com do not show old people wearing clunky-looking technology; instead, they depict a wide variety of successful, intriguing personalities from all walks of life who wear and benefit from modern hearing aids. The new photo gallery includes Welsh Paralympic athlete Olivia Breen, Amsterdam-based comedian Lara Ricote (Gala's sister), UK singer-songwriter James Page (aka Sivu), New York DJ Julie Slavin (aka, DJ Hesta Prynn), US historian and author Jaipreet Virdi, and Nashville musician Jacob Kulick.

The New Norm image bank provides media, academia, non-profits, and others reporting on hearing loss access to free, high-quality images that represent the modern era of hearing aids and celebrate life with hearing loss. Ranging from close-up in-ear shots displaying the latest hearing technology, to fun lifestyle imagery showing real life achievements, the image bank provides a wider selection of positive photos of real-life people wearing today's hearing aids.

Gn New Norm Athlete Olivia Breen

Paralympic athlete Olivia Green with her hearing aids.

Photographer Gala Ricoti, who has worn hearing aids from a young age, appears to have been the right person for the job. “Growing up, the visual representation of hearing aids has always been these bulky, elderly visuals of people wearing them. I had never identified with any of the images that I saw,” she said. “And since I've had them from a young age, I've been able to see firsthand the advantages of the technology. So I feel like the visual representation hasn't evolved, and people's perception of hearing loss is still stuck in the past, although the technology has gotten so much better.

"I'm hoping that through these images, we can humanize the experience and be able to showcase the grace and the strength of everyone wearing hearing aids and their confidence. Hopefully, they will spark conversations and create a more inclusive world.”

Ricote added that the project wasn't exactly easy. “Honestly, it's hard to see the hearing aids. And even when I was taking the pictures, it was difficult to try to capture them—they're so small. And so I hope these images can help update people on what this technology looks like now, instead of what they're used to seeing with the outdated perceptions.”

Lara Ricote's hearing aid pictured from behind her head

Comedian Lara Ricote with her hearing aids.

Stigma and the paradox of hearing aid miniaturization

At The New Norm campaign briefing, Jill Mecklenburger, AuD, principal audiologist in GN's Global Audiology Group, cited several statistics that point to popular misconceptions about hearing loss and hearing aids:

  • 4 out of 5 people with hearing loss don't use hearing aids, partly due to denial, stigma, and worries about appearance.
  • By some estimates, 344 million people globally are missing out on the sounds of life, communicating, socializing, and audio from TV and digital content due to hearing loss.
  • Research from GN indicates that 45% of those aged 40 to 49 have noticed changes to their hearing, yet less than 10% of people in that age range wear hearing aids.
  • About half of these people who do seek help rank appearance and visibility of hearing aids as one of their top-3 most important factors when considering to adopt them.
  • Hearing loss is now recognized as the largest modifiable risk factor for dementia.

For many people who have hearing loss, aesthetics and the physical appearance of the devices remain a major issue. A 2011 study by Gagné, Southall, and Jennings noted that, historically, about 40% of adults with hearing loss who do not use hearing aids cite self-stigma as one of the top-5 reasons for their non-purchasing decision. Self-stigma occurs when people internalize what they believe are public attitudes and suffer numerous negative consequences as a result. Although attitudes surrounding hearing aids and the so-called "hearing aid effect” have hopefully improved over time, the misconceptions about how hearing aids may make you look old or infirm still persist.

US historian and author Jaipreet Virdi has studied and written about hearing aid advertising and perceptions of hearing loss. She wears hearing aids and is featured in some of The New Norm photos taken by Ricote. "If you look at early 20th Century advertisements for hearing aids, they introduce a wide demographic of users—including children, young people, and young couples—and they aim to target the hearing aid user within [a larger age group], promoting the benefit hearing aids can provide,” she says. “For example, the ads might show a mother hearing a child or a child hearing a teacher...However, by the late-20th Century, these ads became essentially standardized where we only start to see images of elderly people. And, the irony is there is also a paradox that comes with stigma and technology: the smaller hearing aids become, the more that stigma can increase because we can't see them anymore.”

Whittaker agrees. “For as long as I can remember, we've talked about invisibility and discretion in hearing aids,” she said. “The drive towards delivering hearing care has led to increased miniaturization of hearing technology with devices getting smaller and smaller. And the reality is that today's hearing aids are so small and so ergonomic that you actively have to look for them. So you might notice someone in the queue at the supermarket wearing hearing aids if you're standing directly behind them.

“But on the whole, the average person just doesn't see the vast majority of hearing aids being worn every day, all around us,” says Whittaker. “Modern hearing aids have, in effect, become invisible. And one of the side effects of that is that if you asked the average person to describe a hearing aid, they will probably describe something like [a large, ugly, older-technology device].”

The New Norm collection of beautiful and empowering images will be available for free download from Unsplash starting today. You can find them by typing "hearing aids" or "hearing loss" into the Unsplash search engine.

Karl

Editor in Chief

Karl Strom is the Editor in Chief of HearingTracker. He has been covering the hearing aid industry for over 30 years.